Director: Dee Rees
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Jonathan Banks, Mary J Blige
Dee Rees follows Pariah and Bessie with this Netflix Original; an adaptation of a novel by Hillary Jones, a period piece, a treaty on racism and post-war displacement in America, and a serious prestige picture ready for the upcoming awards season. The question of eligibility hangs over it, a conversation that seems finally destined to happen. Rees’ film is the kind of widescreen epic that Oscar regularly covets, but its appearance in homes as opposed to cinemas could potentially blur the lines for the Academy.
That it is this film that seems mostly likely to properly issue the debate is a testament to its quality. Rees has carved out an elegant and personal film from a text which could easily have been wrought as detached, historical cliffnoting in lesser hands. When caucasian husband and father Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) is swindled on a deal to buy a house, his family find themselves relocated to farmland shared with an African-American family, the Jacksons. Both households have members away fighting in WW2. Their proximity generates tensions from the off as Henry immediately assumes a degree of authority over the Jacksons, interrupting their dinner to demand assistance moving in.
The film adopts a choral approach, with each significant participating character adding their own perspective, narrating their piece of the tale. The approach is similar to that applied by Terrence Malick in his recent string of films, only Mudbound is more driven, more specific with its intentions.
The cast is uniformly impressive. Rob Morgan imbues Hap Jackson with justified indignation at Henry’s presumption. For his part Clarke’s Henry – the strong, silent type in the eyes of his wife – is wholly a man of his time; the performance is somewhat thankless but finely judged and truthful. The matriarchs show their mettle too. Carey Mulligan’s Laura is doe-eyed, earnest, but stands her ground when backed into a corner, protective and forthright. While Mary J Blige’s Florence Jackson is pragmatic, world-weary (and who can blame her), yet persistent in her love and pride for her flock. An often silent soothsayer.
The scope here is wide, as Rees intermingles struggles on the farm with brief flashes to the battles overseas, stretching out the canvas of her work with effective economy. These scenes are smartly staged. There are no unnecessary shots designed to boast scale for their own sake, and the film is all the better for it. It stays true to itself and all feels, ironically, equal. Rees moves fluidly through the material, the editing is a small marvel in itself; with so much ground to cover it finds a rhythm that doesn’t tire. In short, the pacing is just as it feels it should be.
The film broods when both families are reunited with members who have been away to war. Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) is shocked to discover his service hasn’t altered his standing back in Mississippi, where his family are still second class citizens. However, Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund) offers him respect, their mutual service history acting as a bridge across race lines. Jamie suffers with shellshock and the two veterans bond over their feeling of otherness in the community. But their progressive friendship ignites the events of the harrowing final act. An astonishingly well-played card from Dees and a gut punch to those sitting comfortably in their assumptions of just what Mudbound is.
Entrenched prejudice isn’t easily dispelled, and it is this rot in the American psyche that Mudbound most openly shames. An easy target? Sure. But one that remains grotesquely relevant today. Rees’ film seeks hope in the olive branch of mutual understanding, though one would also hope that America’s future need not be healed exclusively through shared trauma. This film acknowledges all too well how likely this particular outcome is; soliciting optimism before pessimism douses all in a torrential downpour. Scars may heal over but they remain scars.
It is a grand, ambitious work and as such feels underserved by the small screen, deserving of a wide cinematic release. Netflix may provide convenience but nothing beats seeing a movie of significant craft brought to life on a big screen. Still, until Netflix has a change of heart in how to treat their finest productions, this is how we shall receive them, and with this one under her belt, Rees has cemented herself as a voice to be reckoned with.